Monday, November 25, 2013

RIGHTEOUS PATIENCE

I was walking around, thinking about being thankful, which is not a problem.  But this is my first Thanksgiving since becoming an official blogger and I wanted to think of something original.  Thanksgiving is a wonderful time of year to stop and take measure of all the good in our lives.  Of course, it is even better if we do that daily.
                                                        Happy Thanksgiving!

When we sit down at the table around the turkey or the ham or the hen, we can't eat until we have said what we are thankful for in the last year.  And then we pray and start passing the dressing and cranberry sauce, eyeing the pecan and pumpkin pies on the buffet before the plate in front of us has even been filled.  Look, there is even more over there.  I better hurry and eat so I can get to the pie first.

The thought of the pecan pie dolloped in real whipped cream dangles like a carrot on an imaginary string hanging from the light fixture, barely at eye level but never out of sight.  You take a bite of the delicious cornbread sage dressing which took Mama hours to prepare.  Cut a bit of tender white meat and catch a smidge of cranberry jelly on the shiny silver fork which lives in dark seclusion with a family of silver, wrapped in soft blue silver cloths tied with grosgrain ribbon tucked in the drawer of the mahogany breakfront where treasured heirlooms sparkle on shelves just waiting to break out in holiday merriment.  She spent two hours standing at the kitchen counter polishing that very morning.

The pecan pie catches your eye, averting your eyes from sweet Grannie sitting across the table who loves nothing better than to hear every single word that comes from your mouth because we are special and well loved and almost perfect, to hear her tell it.  Her Sunday School class knows every time you won a spelling bee and when you graduated Magna Cum Laude from college and the color scheme of your new kitchen when you got married and moved away.  And she knows about their granddaughters, too. 

The smell of the clove in the pumpkin pie is calling out to Nathan and so is Josh as the phone in his lap lights up and the story Daddy is telling about winning the state football championship,which he tells every year on this weekend, is once again lost on Nate because some of the guys are going down to the river and he is immediately trying to figure out a swift exit from this family holiday meal but not before dessert.

Of course, Daddy is telling the story to gently remind everyone that football is being played as he speaks, without directly coming out with the words but he is bothered by the television hanging on a string from the light fixture wondering if it will hold before it drops in his lap or worse, in his plate of food because he did stand around outside in his L.L. Bean jacket to make sure the turkey was deep fried, assuring he would be in control of the situation.

Now a splendid shiny Disco ball is hanging on a string from the light fixture because Aunt Kimberly is practicing new dance steps under the table in preparation for the Dancing with the Stars Finale tomorrow night.  She is wearing her new Jessica Simpson shoes and the strappy sandals need to be worn a few times before she can actually stand upright but then she remembers her toes, wondering if they can fit her in at Hairspray Heaven this afternoon but only after she picks off all of the pecans on her piece of pie because she doesn't like nuts, just the goop and crust which her second cousin rolled out yesterday on a kitchen counter the day before Kim would come through the door with "her" homemade pie, claiming she had spent all day picking the pecans out of the shell and it just wore her out.

Uncle Jack is filling up on seconds of the green bean casserole his sister makes only for him because no one else in the family likes it.  But that is the way his sister is to everybody, always thinking of everyone first which does get tiresome to hear some folks tell it.  He cannot find fault with her because she is his only sister and has always been nothing but kind, even when he had to marry Kimberly who is really not like anyone they had ever known but she was still welcomed with open arms.  Now a baby crib is hanging by a string from the light fixture because Jack thinks he hears a creaking from the bouncy springs in the closest bedroom which Sister outfitted with a used baby bed she painted aqua before they knew if it was a boy or girl.  It was a boy.

Mama reaches for the olives.  She just loves olives.  They are her midnight secret.  When she gets up in the middle of the night to let Pepper out, she goes to get a glass of milk but when she opens the fridge and sees the jar of green olives stuffed with pimentos she pulls the pickle fork from the every day cutlery and spears three olives, at first.  Olive oil is good for you so she will stick the fork back into the brine a couple more times but she doesn't eat the olives from the fork because of germs.  She is very careful that way.  While she is munching on a black olive from the green depression glass pickle dish she pulled from the breakfront earlier in the morning before she polished the silver, she remembers the dog.

And she looks up.  There is the family dog hanging on a string from the light fixture.  Pepper, the Aussie mix, scratching his head as dog hair floats down and lands on the carcass of the half-eaten deep fried turkey which is next to the pan of cornbread sage dressing that looks like it has been attacked by an angry serving fork which was originally used for a slice of cranberry jelly and got his feelings hurt because he wasn't assigned to the dressing. 

She shakes her head and then opens her mouth in shock as the whole light fixture with a pecan and pumpkin pie, a television set, a shiny Disco ball, a baby crib and an Aussie mix Pepper each hanging on a string, cracks off the ceiling, falling apart onto the dining table, breaking stemware and food splattered plates.

"Well I never.  If everyone hadn't been so impatient, this never would have happened."  She takes off her copper colored Williams' Sonoma apron purchased just for Thanksgivings, folds it and puts it in her chair.  "You can eat pie without me.  The coffeepot is ready, just turn it on.  Robert Redford has a new movie out today.  Be sure and clean up, please."
  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

PERFECT CORNBREAD DRESSING - A TURKEY DAY POSTCARD

I don't think this will ruin my culinary reputation because we are a small, intimate group of folks.  Do you ever get a postcard (some people do still use the postal service to make personal connections while vacationing in Maine, delightful little PO on the island) that reads "Wish You Were Here!"?

And you think, "oh yeah, they really wish I was there with them, eating a Fish Sandwich (Haddock) while watching the waves breakdance on the rocks below at the foggy Pemaquid Point."  "I wish," you think, "but some of us have to work for a living."

                                            Rocky Pemaquid Point, Maine

Consider this my Thanksgiving postcard, only it reads "Wish You Had Been Here."  What that really means in postcard language is "I forgot to remove the lens cap" and there are no tantalizing pictures of the chicken and dressing I spent all day Saturday preparing.  Or the picture of the plate piled with dressing and the canned jellied condiment, all you can eat.

I did have the radio blaring (Florida/Georgia Line or Roar) and was probably dancing around the dog who velcros himself to the stove, sitting patiently waiting for chicken bits to fall from my fingers.  Burt, the amazing factoid machine, recently found an article claiming chicken is a dog's favorite food. I believe it because a stewing chicken would attract a whole neighborhood of dogs if I let them in the house. 

I will continue with the recipe because it will still work.  Of course, I have to go look for the blue sticky note I used to write down the recipe as I cooked.  When I am making dressing for just us, I don't follow a recipe and taste as I go.  But I promise, this time I wrote it down.  I did hold off on more sage because I know that sage is a personal preference.  I always use more than most folks.

I mix this up in my 8 qt. pot.  If the pictures had been available, you would see me wearing non-latex gloves but in truth, I usually use the best tools: very, very clean hands.

PERFECT CORNBREAD DRESSING

2 batches of perfect cornbread
1 stick of butter
2 cups each of celery and onion, sliced and diced
4 cups of homemade broth*
4 eggs
5 tsp rubbed sage
salt and pepper to taste

Add celery, onion and butter to skillet.  Cook on low until veggies are softened but not mushy.  Turn off heat.  In large pot, add cornbread and crumble up, smooshing it well with your fingers.  Think of this as playing with your food.  This will take a few minutes if done properly.  Next, add butter and cooked veggies to the cornbread mash and mix well.  Add cooled broth (not straight from the pot, too hot) and mix.  Add four beaten eggs and mix.  Add sage and mix well.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  This should have a consistency between cake dough and cookie dough but not stiff. 

Pour into prepared pan but don't fill to the very top.  This will more than fill up a 9 X 13 stainless baking pan. I just don't have one pan big enough.  The more dressing there is in the pan the longer it will take to cook (which I have learned the hard way, waiting and waiting). Just use a another smaller pan.  Cook at 350 for one hour.  Insert fork in the middle to test for doneness.  Let it set for a few minutes before serving.

Don't even think of throwing a few crumbs of light bread into the mix.  However, I have known of cooks who have added dry cornmeal to reduce the mix if too much broth is added.  The nice thing about dressing is that you can make it the day before and take your time to get it right.  I had never even made dressing until about ten years ago and never with a recipe.  Good luck.

VARIATION:  To make Chicken and Dressing, used cooked meat from Chicken Broth.  Skin and bone breasts well.  Shred meat and toss into the uncooked dressing.  You can also spread the meat on top and press it down into the uncooked dressing before cooking.

We love fresh cranberries in my house but do keep canned on the shelf for convenience between times. 


***CHICKEN BROTH

4-5 large chicken breasts -
      WITH skin and bones still intact
3-4 stalks of celery and celery leafs
2-3 carrots
1 onion, quartered
salt and pepper to taste

Place chicken breasts in pot and pour enough water to cover completely.  Add vegetables and salt and pepper.  Stew on stovetop for about an hour but depends on size of meat.  I always check my chicken with a meat thermometer to test doneness.  Keep on a low boil until cooked thoroughly.  Makes good broth, better than canned!


The pot pictured on the right came from The Elk Hotel kitchen, my grandparents' hotel, once located on the corner of the square in the county seat, when the county square was the center of all commerce and communication. 



#SIZZLE - PERFECT CORNBREAD - NO STICK GUARANTEE

 
Butter melting on a slice of Perfect Cornbread

Any good Southern cook worth her weight in Crisco can stir up a fitting pan of cornbread, worthy of all the purple hull peas, fried okra, butter beans, sliced tomatoes, fried eggplant, cooked squash and new potatoes that might have the honor of residing on the same plate with this crispy delicacy.  But there are new cooks rattling the pots and pans every day.  This recipe is for the new cook of any region seeking an authentic quick bread to serve with soup, beans or meat and three.  Or maybe the experienced cook who can't get the cornbread to pop out of the skillet without sticking.  If it starts out in a packet or a little blue box, it is only an imitator hoping to achieve greatness.

I have mentioned Perfect Cornbread previously, Pea Salad for a True Southern Repast 9-1-13.  The original recipe came from a cookbook that looks like a checkerboard tablecloth which was a wedding present of my Mother's.  This is the only recipe I ever use.  I don't mess with perfection.  I learned the secret to good cornbread at my Mamaw's knee.  It's all about the sizzle, two sizzles to be exact.

1 cup of flour                                                     
1/4 cup of sugar                                        
1 tsp salt                                                   
4 tsp baking powder
1 cup yellow cornmeal                             
2 eggs
1 cup of milk    
1/4 cup of shortening


Yes, this recipe does have sugar in it.  Now I am a die-hard Southern cook, except in this case, but a little bit of sugar only sweetens the pie and will get you lots of compliments.  Infact, I have never made it without.

Add flour, sugar, salt and baking powder to a mixing bowl and mix up.  Put your cast iron skillet on the stove over a good heat, a bit more than medium.  Add the shortening to the skillet so it can get melt and get hot.  Add cornmeal to the flour mixture and mix.  Add two eggs and 1 cup of milk to the dry mixture, mixing everything together very well with a fork. 

Watch your grease. (Do not ever walk away from a stove when heating shortening.)  When it is hot (just learn by doing) pour the hot grease from the skillet into the wet mixture.  You should hear a sizzle (1).  The picture to the right is just after pouring the hot grease into the mix. 

Put the skillet back on the hot stove and add a good dollop of shortening.  This will melt while you are stirring the hot shortening into the wet cornbread mixture. When the second round of shortening is hot, pour the cornbread mix into the skillet, still on the stove.  You should hear a sizzle (2).

Using a mitt, put the skillet of cornbread into the oven at 425 for 20 minutes.  It will be done but you might want to check it and turn down oven (5-10 degrees) if too brown on top.  Using a mitt, remove from the oven and flip the skillet of cornbread onto a cutting board or heavy plate.  And then using another plate, flip it back to the desired side.  You can play with that.  If you have done all of this correctly or even mostly correct, it will jump out of the skillet for you!  Enjoy!

Now that you can make Perfect Cornbread you can move to Lesson 2, Perfect Cornbread Dressing. 

Perfect Cornbread hot from the oven!
 
The backside of Perfect Cornbread
 
 
 
For even more background on Cornbread, check out my post,                                          
The Nascar Cornmeal Conspiracy 11-11-13


                                                                                  








Friday, November 22, 2013

THANK-YOU MR. PRESIDENT

My earliest memory is running down a street hanging onto my mother's hand and my sister in her arms.  Mama is in tears.  The neighbor lady opens her door and we walk into the house.  The mothers put down their children and collapse into each other's arms, crying, crying and crying.  I just remember I didn't understand why.

How could I understand?  How could anyone understand?  I recognized confusion and anguish about what was going on in my world and an even bigger world.  I do remember sitting down in front of a borrowed black and white television and watching a funeral where there were children just like me, except they were with their mother and I was at my house with my mother and father.  I could feel the world stop even if I didn't know why.  I remember the weighted nothingness of those days and the immense sadness of whatever had happened. 

I doubt I had any idea about a President of the United States until that horrible day in Dallas.  But because of that day and from that time forward, I was raised with a true reverence for the President.  My interest in all things presidential has been a lifelong endeavor.  Growing up, we stopped at every Presidential birthplace and Presidential home along our travels.  I loved to read books about the presidents, their wives and families.  I was a wealth of information.  I might not understand the politics but I knew a lot of background information.   

When I was a baby in the fall of 1961, President Kennedy came to town to visit House Speaker Sam Rayburn, who was dying of cancer.  Mama, and her friend, Rosemary, bundled up their two babies and went to Baylor Hospital to see the President.  Mama said there were about fifty to sixty people also waiting.  When Kennedy stepped out, the young mothers held up their babes in arms.  Although he was only about fifteen feet away, he didn't stop to kiss any babies on that day.  But my Mother was amazed at the auburn color of his hair which didn't show up in the black and white era of the time.

My first encounter with a President was maybe a glimpse.  But through the years of my life, Presidential sightings have been a very real thing.  I have seen all the Presidents in my lifetime except for Dwight Eisenhower #34 and Gerald Ford #38.  Before, during and after.  Nothing beats the thrill for a patriotic heart to hear "Ruffles and Flourishes" followed by "Hail to the Chief" and the presentation of the President.  Politics aside, it is a tremendous honor to be in the same place with the leader of our nation.

Nixon was the first President I was interested in, along with my classmates.  We had a mock election at school.  For some reason, he was like a hero to me.  I did get to see him twice and I even received a personal letter from him in response to a handmade get well card when he was hospitalized.  Growing up in Texas, my family made a trip to Austin to see LBJ and Ladybird at the Johnson Library.  He gave a speech and I was standing nearby.  When you make eye contact with someone, you know it.  It was an exciting trip.

I was only fourteen when Gerald Ford was sworn into office.  Like the rest of the country, I had followed the Watergate Hearings and Nixon's resulting resignation.  This would not be the last time I was disappointed by a President.  I liked Ford because he reminded me of my Daddy, in a certain way.  Only weeks into office, the Fords dealt openly about Betty Ford's Breast cancer in a time when personal health issues were not discussed publicly.  This willingness to be forthright opened the door for womens' health.

Carter was President when I graduated from high school and into my college years.  As an adult, I have come to respect him and his endeavors for world peace.  I imagine he won't be teaching Sunday School much longer but I would love to be able to go to Plains and be a student for one class.  Rosalyn Carter's leadership in the fight against the stigma of mental illness has been remarkable.

Ronald Regan and I "met" as we were walking in opposite directions down a hall.  He was in town for a pre-candidate press conference which I was covering as a high school reporter.  He nodded his head and said "hello."  It was just the two of us hurrying along.  He turned out to be the first President who got my vote.

Burt and I headed downtown in the fall of 1988 to see George H. W. Bush campaigning for votes.  This election would be my last foray into the Republican arena. 

I remember clearly the first time I met Bill Clinton.  He was running for Attorney General of Arkansas.  Headquarters was in an old house downtown and my handbell choir was painting offices to raise money for a choir trip.  He was leaning up against the kitchen counter with a cup of coffee in his hands, talking to friends.  The next time was at a meeting of Young Democrats in my high school.  I remember coming home and telling my mother that he was going to be President someday.  At the time, I never could have imagined my words would prove true and the impact his political career would have on my life and those related to me.  The thrill of victory and the crushing blow of human failings.

Barak Obama came to town the weekend before a big state election.  We arrived early and were able to get a seat on the steps just feet below the microphone.  No podium.  Very casual.  When he spoke, Obama looked about at the audience.  For a few seconds, eye contact is made with an individual.  For me it is not a feeling of "oh, he looked at me" but instead, a feeling of one to one conversation, a real connection.

I hoped to see Ford at the Opening of the Clinton Presidential Library but he was too ill to attend.  Presidents Carter and George W. Bush were added to my list of those I've seen.   

Fifty years ago today, the motorcade route was lined with people, the windows of the buildings facing the street were full of people looking out to catch a glimpse of President Kennedy.  My father watched from a window as the motorcade passed the store.  He had seen the President.  Everyone was excited.  In just minutes, their elation turned to shock and disbelief to hear that the President had been shot.  Dallas would shut down at the news of his death.  The nation fell into a deep mourning.

The next day my family drove back downtown and placed flowers at Dealey Plaza.  On Sunday, we went to church.  My mother remembers a note being passed up to our minister during the worship service.  At the end of his sermon, Dr. Herbert Howard prayed for the soul of Lee Harvey Oswald.

As a girl growing up in Dallas, the assassination would often shadow my thoughts.  It set a pall on the city for many, many years.  Driving to my aunts and uncles we would drive the exact lanes followed by the motorcade.  I would know where we were passing.  Life could not be stopped.  A major thoroughfare could not be closed.  Coming back home on the opposite side, I would look up and see the Book Depository.  I poured over the books full of photographs and words, trying to fill in the parts I did not have memory of.  Later, watching news reports in the following years, over and over hoping the film would not show the President falling forward and the First Lady jumping up.  I know that sounds crazy but that somehow history could be changed.

Of course, that is something everyone would wish for, history changing.  My parents had not voted for Kennedy.  Under the blue Texas sky, a thief in the daylight had murdered our nation's leader.  The President belongs to all of us, whether we think of ourselves as Democrat, Republican, Independent or just don't care.  Red state.  Blue state.  Purple house.  It doesn't matter.  We are all red, white and blue.  I'm tired of all of our division.  We are the worst threat to our beloved nation.  We have more freedoms than any nation and yet all we seem to focus on is "you shouldn't do that" or "we won't do this."   

We have seen what hate can do when homegrown ideology twists souls into inhuman shapes.  When self becomes more important than the whole.  Ford's Theater.  Dallas.  Birmingham.  Memphis.  It is always out there but we are the ones who feed that dark voice.  Throw a floodlight of thanksgiving across the states, turn it into thanks for all that is good about this country and what it means to be able to live a life free and able.  Be thankful for men (and women) willing to take on the office of the President of the United States of America.  I love Texas.  I love Dallas.  I love the United States of America.
    


 







    

Monday, November 18, 2013

KUDZU

Tonight, fries and chicken strips from the bar.  Last night's dinner had been a fresh caught Maine lobster with drawn butter.  Now I was hundreds of miles down the road and nowhere near the rocky Maine shore where I had stood watching two lobstermen clean their boat in the early afternoon, as buoys bobbed in the bay, marking the traps submerged beneath the water.  Each buoy was a different set of colors much like a signal flag shouting instructions without a sound but without a doubt. 
Southport, Maine
Occasionally, violent lobster wars would erupt over trap placement.

Otherwise, the Maine coast was as peaceful as a postcard.  Thick black-green seaweed moss glistened in its tidal exposure, clinging to the seawall, every exposed rock and the underside of the floating piers, reminding me of the smothering kudzu along the highways in the South, turning woods and abandoned country homes into green fairylands.  Objects which are so totally transformed by the encroaching nature that they look unnatural at first glance.

The last morning in Maine was ending in a late afternoon in New Jersey.  After driving all day in heavy turnpike and interstate traffic mixed with construction and rain, I was ready to stop.  The October afternoon was dwindling down.  There reaches a certain atmosphere in a car of tired people when now becomes the absolute.  As we pulled under the covered drive of a large motel, an older couple with keys in hand, stepped from the lobby and got into a parked car and drove around the back of the motel.  With all of his energy, Daddy went inside, returning with a map and directions to our room.

Driving past a side entrance, I noticed a young, blonde woman wearing shorts and a halter top standing with the door partially opened.  She was on her phone, leaning out the door as if looking for someone.  I didn't mention it.  Truck cabs lined the back lot at our entrance.  A nice trucker held the door open as I brought in the bags.  Thankfully, the room was just around the corner as my traveling companions didn't have many steps left to spare.

The room looked lovely, twenty five years ago.  The shiny, polyester spreads were rust colored, coordinating nicely with grey accents in the room.  They had worn well, but not out, during that time period.  The bathroom looked clean enough, which can be deceiving but sometimes that's all you can go by.

The only requirements for this way station were its immediate location in time of need and the proper news station for the last weeks of an election year.  And a couple of beds.  Too tired to venture into town, Mama and Daddy unpacked the picnic bag which was beginning to run low on the cocktail hour feast of good mixed nuts and Vienna sausages.  Add crackers and condiments and dinner was complete.  With the t.v. blaring, they were set for the evening.

The front desk recommended I try the chicken strips at the motel bar.  As I turned towards the bar, a woman, trying to look younger than her years in a fur trimmed jacket and tight jeans, walked into the lobby.  A pattern was developing.

In its halcyon days, this motel had offered the best accommodations along with a large two story lobby, a restaurant with meeting rooms, the bar, and an indoor pool.  A Rotary International circle hung by the restaurant door which was closed for the night.  The place was not seedy or dirty, just past its prime but still fulfilling the purpose of welcoming the weary traveler.  Everyone was helpful and happy.

The disco era was over.  I had never walked into a bar unescorted but there is a first time for everything.  Everyone was gathered at the bar.  Every piece of furniture in the room was constructed from oak and soaked in a heavy coat of polyurethane.  It was clean and tidy.  A Budweiser beer light hung on the wall, spotlighting the famous Clydesdales.  Various crews and OTR truckers had stopped for the night but were not loud and rowdy.

I climbed up on a glossy stool to assess the situation.  The couple I had seen earlier coming out of the motel, walked in and took seats at the end of the bar.  They looked older than my parents.  My immediate read was New England Prim and Proper but not too proper for a glass of wine before dinner.  The gentleman was not remarkable except for the fact he was the only one present wearing a coat and tie, an informal khaki.

His wife could have been related to Katherine Hepburn in her carriage and peculiar hairstyle.  I don't remember what she was wearing because I was trying not to stare at her hair.  Every bit of her grey blonde hair was pulled up onto her head and secured in four or five places, each with a small narrow barrette with green velvet bows.  Although odd, it was neatly done and there were no strays.  This was a style of many years practice and I'm sure a wide assortment of coordinating bows.  She was a graduate of the "Get Your Hair Out of Your Face" school of thought.

Standing next to Prim and Proper was another interesting couple.  I saw them greet each other by sight but there was awkwardness in their conversation.  Both were dressed as if they had taken the time to freshen up after work, before meeting at this bar for their date.  Going on past observations, I suspected an affair or a high class working date.  She was very attractive in dress and makeup and her well-enhanced endowment.

I ordered a Coke and chicken strips.  A woman's laughter turned my attention back to my side of the bar.  She was seated five seats away, surrounded my men.  Once again, her youth and beautiful suede halter top seemed to indicate she might be working for a living.

The young man sitting next to me was probably my daughter's age.  When he spoke, I knew he was from New York City.  He asked me if I was from the South because of my accent.  He and his cousin had saved up money to take their family to Memphis, the home of Elvis.  Touring Graceland had been his personal highlight.  He loved talking to someone about the jungle room and the huge room containing Elvis artifacts, treasures that represented a lifetime of fame and fortune, Presley under glass.  Presentations of jeweled jumpsuits with matching belts and scarves, arranged as if Elvis had just stepped away.  A wealth of things he had possessed with no mention of things that had possessed him in the end.

For my new buddy, Memphis was a dream destination.  From the Beale Street Blues to Barbeque, he loved the South.  While I lived a couple of hours west of Memphis, New York City was one of my favorite places.  I was there when I heard Elvis had died.

Buddy talked about his grandmother.  He probably thought we were contemporaries.  He seemed like a good guy and a hard worker, delivering rolls of paper to newspaper presses which kept him on the road three nights a week.

I told Buddy I had been on the road with my parents for over a week but we traveled well together and I loved to drive.  Our goal had been to see my father's sister and now we were heading home.  Daddy had been a trooper but he was worn out.  You don't know what you don't know.  This would be our last road trip.

We were headed back to the South, where the kudzu disguised trees with smothering vines and green leaves.   Branches, trunks and the surrounding grounds were draped in a brilliant verdant green like a rhinestone jumpsuit reflecting light, hiding the limbs now weakening under the blanketing weight.  The cruel beauty of nature was destroying the surest and the strongest in the woods, felled by weight and lack of sun, at random.  Once an emerald emblem of the South planted for erosion control, kudzu was now an invasive, hardy weed.  Growing a foot a day, it was best not to tarry by these tangled woods where life was slipping away.



Saturday, November 16, 2013

CROSSING THE BRIDGE, MODERATO

(not too fast, like a spiritual)

I had to hunt for the piece of sheet music.  For eons, it had hung out within easy reach of my grasp.  But on this day I had to stand up and lift the upholstered seat.  Overplay had banished it to the dark inner box of the lid of the piano bench. 

My view
I was in the middle of washing the dishes when I heard the news on the radio.  Not that I was surprised.  Who hasn't used music to soothe the beast of pain and disappointment?  And now a real study had been conducted to prove this works.  The number one pain reducer is "Bridge Over Troubled Water," the very music I had hunted for that afternoon.    That's the way my life lives.  Things in my life are constantly bumping into one another.  Recently, I was looking at leftover construction paper thinking it would make bright confetti pieces.  A radio ad begins to play about a party business with the same name of the thought I had just had in my head.  Weird.  I had not played that song in over a year, I am certain.

Piano came into my life when I was eight.  Practice, practice, practice.  My BIL is the exception to the rule, a child prodigy discovered at the age of three.  At some point, he did decide to take lessons.  Music is his life and career.  For the rest of us, more practice.  Experts now say that 10,000 hours of practice will make you an expert.  And others disagree.  I think you have to learn the basics and invest in the time to build on those basics.  The joy of playing the piano is not instant gratification for anyone involved: the student, the teacher or the innocent bystander caught in the practice shots of missed notes and the frustrations of a struggling novice.

Popular sheet music was my measure of success.  Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head and The Theme to Love Story are like the chicken and the egg.  I don't know which came first.  Once I could play something I heard on the radio, it increased my incentive to be able to play better but only for myself and a very tiny, privileged audience.  With the music in front of me.

A new piano teacher (see Exquisite Virtuoso 9-3-13) in a new town demanded more of my lazy talent.  Her rigorous program of classical music extracted more practice of my mind and hands in the unchartered territory of Chopin, Grieg, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Paderewski to name a few.  And amazingly, at least to me, my ability to play and enjoy the popular music zoomed across the keyboard.  Except for recital pieces in my early years, memorization was not important, until my new teacher glued me to her piano bench.  Once my fingers learned their path and the timing, I put them through the paces. 

When I am playing the piano, my emotions can be cooled in the concentration of reading a piece of music.  If I know the piece by memory, my fingers can hardly keep up with the outpouring of emotion.  Good, bad, ugly, sad.  I can sit down at the piano and reach for a familiar song to find comfort like someone sitting down at a bar.  Maybe that is why piano bars are popular?  For me, the music doesn't disappoint.

Truthfully, that is the way I have used music since I was young.  Along comes Simon and Garfunkel.  If I am a sad teenager, BOTW.  Someone is sick, BOTW.  Friend tried to commit suicide, BOTW.  A young friend's mother dies, BOTW.    My band aid for life.  If I can just get home and get to the piano.  That's how I feel sometimes.   

10,000 hours later, I can play BOTW with my eyes closed, almost.  However I am feeling at the moment.  Of course, Stairway to Heaven and anything Dan Fogelberg are very much present in the list of my go-to ivory ticklers.  And I do pull out the classical pieces.  They have their own place and ability to sooth or pep me up.  I am so glad my parents "encouraged" me to take piano lessons.

One of my favorite verses from BOTW: 

"Sail on silver girl, Sail on by, Your time has come to shine,  
 All your dreams are on their way.  See how they shine."

Wow.  We are going to get through this.  Stretch out your hand and see what is out there, it is good and waiting just for you.

Really.  The song delivers.

Monday, November 11, 2013

THE NASCAR CORNMEAL CONSPIRACY

This is a conspiracy that nobody knows about because nobody is talking.  I tell you it is all being burned away in engines every day but most notably in the auto racing industry.  There is no sense whatsoever in thirty-two cars going around a track or a track that twists and turns on a course.  That is a lot of gasoline for five hundred miles and all of those cars are burning, burning, burning.  And there is only one women they let race.  But to look at her, I don't think she eats much so it is of little concern to her that the very essence of Thanksgiving and Christmas meals is going up in the air as all those little cars race their tires off.

This is serious.  Without cornmeal, there can be no cornbread.  And you have to have cornbread to make Dressing for Thanksgiving.  Cornbread is to the South like a popover to Menomonie, Wisconsin and Melba Toast to Beverly Hills, California, and Crackers to Fort Meyers, Florida and a flour tortilla to San Antonio, Texas and a lobster roll to Boothbay, Maine.  A shortage of cornmeal could disrupt the usual beautiful holiday tradition of steaming sage dressing full of onions and celery and that little jelled roll of cranberry sauce.

Thank goodness this nonsense will soon be shed.  And they say that boy may win for the sixth time.  I say that just proves it is rigged.  Just because Daryl Earnhardt and Richard Petty did it seven times, doesn't mean this little scrawny fellow from California will make number six.  I wonder what his Mama thinks of him racing.

Course she probably lives in California and I don't know if they give a fig about dressing over there, sitting on that fault line.  This is true because I wouldn't make it up.  Thanksgiving dinner is threatened.  Dressing, as we Southerners know it, may be at stake.  Corn continues to be a bumper crop.  That should be a good thing but they are growing it to make fuel instead of for eating.  Corn is being grown every summer and it is going to make ethanol.  I think it comes from corn oil.

But with all of that corn going for fuel, especially the racing kind, the eating kind is getting scarce.  No one will say anything because corn has always been so very important to the American diet, right from the first step out of the boat.  They don't want a corn panic like the spinach panic of 1843.


I am having trouble sleeping at night because I am worried about finding enough cornmeal to make my dressing for Thanksgiving.  It is the perfect dressing.  Course, a perfect dressing is only doable with a perfect cornbread.  You have to have a Mamaw to teach you to make perfect cornbread and I'm not giving that secret away for nothing.  But it is a real secret, I promise.  And there are good southern cooks who can't make a mean dressing.  Bless their heart.  Cornbread is the backbone.     

 Fixing dressing in my family requires nerves of cast iron.  Iron chef is nothing.  We have so many good cooks we can't fit all the food on the table.

Stuffing is not dressing.  Little pieces of “light bread” do not make up a southern dressing.  Let’s face it.  What success can you hope for by saving bread scraps for two weeks?  They get dry.  Did you ever hear of someone taking Chicken and Stuffing to a grieving family?  They’d mourn all over again. 

I have stuffed those little chickens but I will never stuff a turkey.  I know folks can't help where they are raised but the thought of stuffing makes me lose my appetite for a couple of weeks.  Millions of them are raised on white bread stuffing.  White bread is good for toast and a peanut butter sandwich and a fried baloney sandwich. 

I've got to put my mighty pen down and find out more about this conspiracy.  Maybe they are just trying to put us on a diet by taking away corn.  I'll be glad when all of this silly racing is over.  It is not healthy to sit out there in all of that dust, noise and smells.  A person must really be empty on the inside to try and fill it up with all of that stuff.  Course, I can't be too harsh because a lot of those folks are good southern Christians rooting on their favorites.  And they don't know about this Nascar Cornmeal Conspiracy.  It hasn't even been on Fox news yet.    I don't dislike him as a person, but I hope that boy doesn't get number 6.  That is just piggy.





At the annual National Association of Convenience Stores Show in Las Vegas, Growth Energy announced that NASCAR has run more than three million miles on Sunoco Green E15.  green.nascar.com

http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=3391&picture=nascar-race
 

 

Friday, November 8, 2013

BEETHOVEN WORE RED BOOTS: MUST BE 2SDAY

Maybe.  Who knows what color boots he wore!  I wonder if he cared.  Sometimes genius folk are very picky about the whole package and sometimes they can hardly comb their hair.  Come to think of it, when I see paintings of Mr. Ludwig he does have a lot of hair.  Seldom, if ever do I listen to music while I am writing except for an occasional piece of classical music.  Today is one of those exceptions.  And it is Friday and I do have two favorite things today.  Tomorrow is Beethoven and Blue Jeans.  I love going to the symphony and I love wearing my blue jeans with my red boots. 

My red boots are special.  Sometimes you are walking by an item and it flings itself into your arms.  I do love good shoes but I am not a boot hog.  I would rather have one pair of awesome than four pairs of okay.  I'll be hobbling down the hall at the nursing home in these red DJP boots.  They are not for everyday wear because I want them to last.  They have never seen a cloudy day.  And I never have to ask if they make me look cute because they are sassy.

Now you know what I will be wearing to the symphony tomorrow night.  My love of big music came early in my grade school years.  In the 60's and 70's, going to public school in Dallas offered endless opportunities.  Music education was a regular part of my school day. 

Once a year, we celebrated Symphony Day.  Late in the fall, we would bundle up in our coats, stand in straight lines and march out to the shiny silver city buses lined up along the curbs of our school property.  Texas sunshine filled the limitless blue sky, turning the early morning frost on the front lawn into lacy silver. 

Students in our school walked, biked or were driven to our neighborhood school.  The ride to Music Hall was a part of the day's excitement.  The bus windows were still cold from being parked overnight.  Slipping into the window seat, a child could press their cheek to the cold glass and feel warm air rise from a tiny vent just below the window.  Driving through Dallas in the morning, seeing people coming out of apartment buildings, others standing at bus stops waiting, grocery carts lined up outside of the market waiting for a new day, men in caps and jackets filling up cars and cleaning windshields. 
 
 After weeks of listening to music while our teacher held up cardboard pictures of instruments, we had arrived at The Dallas Music Hall at Fair Park.  Thousands of students from the city schools filed into the expansive concert hall, filling all of the seats.  We strained our necks to see the ceiling so far above our heads.  Heavy velvet curtains rose, revealing a stark white shell full of people holding real instruments. 

The conductor was now our teacher, directing each section of the woodwinds, the brass, and the strings to play individually, to teach our ears the sounds of live music.  Then everything stopped and the orchestra played as one.   Even though I was young, I remember losing my sense of self and becoming a silent partner in the anticipation of where the music would go next.  

From the darkened hall, we exited into the noon sun where hundreds of silver buses pooled through our squinting eyes.  On the way back to school, we ate sack lunches.  When we arrived, the lawn was green again and our wool coats warm and scratchy.    

I've been listening to the ASO performance of Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 during Philip Mann's inaugural season 2010.  He has never missed a beat but he has come close to conducting himself into a flying leap backwards onto the front seats.  His enthusiasm is fun to watch.  And come to think of it, he has lots of red hair! 




The ASO has programs available for the state's schoolchildren.  See arkansassymphony,org
    

 


 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

CHINABERRY EXPRESS


The cookie jar at Angie’s house was always full of Chips Ahoy Cookies, no matter how many times your hand went in.  Angie was my best friend until I moved in 7th grade.    
 
She lived around the corner, down the street, and one house away from one of the two railroad tracks in our Dallas neighborhood.  When her mother died of cancer, she moved in with her grandmother for part of the week but saw her father every day and on weekends.

Angie’s house was a great playground.  Predating the neighborhood, it sat on a piece of flat, empty land, good for running and yelling.  Inside, she even had a player piano in her bedroom and a pool table in the garage, where we became young pool sharks. 

We usually could be found on a flat part of the rooftop, having swung up from a Chinaberry Tree next to the house.  While collecting berries, we talked about Six Flags, zapped hair, Camp Fire Girls, David Cassidy, K.M.’s short skirts, our bodies, parents and Jesus.  The poisonous berries packed a sting when thrown at a human limb.  One day, we thought it would be cool to sunbathe.  We snuck butter out, applied it to our legs and lay down in the sun.  We were soon cured of sunbathing.
 
Hearing a train whistle, Angie and I would often run into the backfield, waving as the train approached.  Sometimes a man would be riding inside one of the boxcars.  At the back of the field, hidden from the road and down a steep incline, was the second track that passed under the track running next to her family’s property.  We never tested the railroad rules, except once.  
 
A concrete wall and shelf had been built as footing for the legs of the short trestle.  It was an easy spot to get in and out of.  Bold enough to try anything but too young to think of any way it could be dangerous, we jumped down and sat with our backs against the wall, hidden by the overhead track.
 
The piercing train whistle got to us first, but it seemed forever before the train crossed the trestle.  We didn’t close our eyes, but screamed as if we were riding a roller coaster.  This steel horse took us on some ride, rattling our bones as tons of metal, rocking and clashing, rushed just feet above our delicate skulls.  I quivered as if thousands of marching bands with huge drums were inside of me.  If my heart had stopped, just the sheer force and power surrounding me would never have allowed a missed beat.  Although I felt like fleeing, I was paralyzed in the moment.
 
And then it was over.  Checking for adults, we popped up over the wall, and stood up immediately.  Although dazed and breathless, we had pulled it off!  From then on, we stuck to watching from the roof or yard.  For all these years later, I never buy a bag of Chips Ahoy Cookies or hear of a Chinaberry Tree without thinking of Angie.  Sometimes I wonder, when she sees a train, does she think of me?           

               

Sunday, November 3, 2013

THE HAPPY BIRTHDAY GIRL WITH NO PARTY

The birthday girl with no party.  But don't feel sorry for her.  That is exactly the way she wants her day to be, turning eighty.  She is practically running to another state just in case someone she knows locally might take a room at the church and have a lovely reception.  Maybe just a little adoration will
be allowed from the family she is running to and her traveling companion.  She has made it very clear she knows the way with her eyes closed.  Lover of maps and adventure the road is always beckoning.  She will go anyway, anyhow, except why fly when you can get in the car and ride for eight or nine hours with birthday luck.  In her car, let me make that very clear.  Car love - seriously.

She loves the smell of new tires and squirrels away secret bars of chocolate.  She is the designated driver in her group of ladies because she can still see at night.  Her mahogany dining room table is always covered in a partial jigsaw puzzle and scattered pieces.  She has everything she needs but she doesn't want too much.  There is no excess of anything in her life except time spent at her computer playing games.  Shopping for shopping's sake doesn't interest her but she loves pretty new clothes.  I heard it from her first, a good bag and good shoes.  She is right but then again, she is right most of the time.

Impeccable taste and fashion advice.  Lipstick, powder and a good haircut.  Blue eyes and simple beauty a teenager who loved makeup could never understand.  Mama blue.  A house with nothing out of place.  A sofa, a chair, a table placement stays forever.

There is nothing in life that can't be cured by writing thank you notes, washing dishes, putting a hot supper on the table.  Writing monthly bills and watching the stock market keep her mind zippy along with crossword puzzles and staying busy. 

There is a trophy on the shelf from the days of her life playing tennis.  And every Bible our family has ever purchased or received.  But she doesn't wear her faith on her sleeve.  She just shows up with whatever meets the need - deviled eggs, chocolate pie or a ham.  And she is quick to let the preacher know how she feels after sitting on the first row at church.  Nothing gets past her.

Especially raising two girls.  Waiting in the wingchair in the dark at 3.  Surprise.  Bacon and eggs for breakfast before church, after a college daughter ran around all night disco dancing.  Surprise.  Taking calls from a concerned professor, politely.  Surprise, your professor called.  Germany?  Really?  Can't see the forest for the trees.  There is this young friend of mine.

Goldwater.  Dallas tears and fears.  Presidential volunteering.  No knives of any kind but disbelief that the Secret Service would really take away his beloved pen knife at the Presidential Library Opening.

Games, always, everyday a full roster.  The Original Cowboy fan, through thick and thin and thick and thin, swaying her day.  World-stopping devotion.  A golf swing but never a player.  Tennis, tennis and more tennis.  Now aerobics to keep her moving.

To lunch but rarely dinner.  A circle of widow ladies with welcoming arms.  Whirlwind socializing.  Book review with a plate of cookies.  Symphony for the children.  Traveling just for a piece of the famous homemade pie.

Every second of every minute figured out weeks in advance, the gift of analyzing bridge twice a week for years.  Tournaments and points and good friends and manners.

The love of family but "when are you leaving" as you walk in the door.  Preparation for leaving.  Holiday dinners with just enough.  Too much leftover dressing would not do.  Leftovers are only tomorrow's meal in three weeks from the freezer.  A lifetime of little lidded cups containing mere tablespoons.  Waste not, want not.  But it was the chili, just that once.

Standing on the tarmac in her winter coat in Morocco.  Left waiting on her Naval Officer because he was right in third grade but wrong about her arrival time.  As fast as she could pack, catch a December train and a transport plane, first flight to a world only imagined in Hollywood.  Tales that would last a lifetime, the yearly tradition of a little ting of the bell on the Christmas corsage he grabbed on the way out the door of a borrowed apartment already full of presents for his bride. 

Working day's end, she and two babies, bathed, freshly dressed, hot supper, everything waiting for his hand upon the door, his castle - their world.  A lively conversation that never ended until the middle of one dark morning.  Why do old people always want to know what time it is in the middle of the night?

Chopped onion and celery sautéing in a pan when he walks in the door and he will think you have really done something.  When Jesus comes, you are going to say "Just a minute, Jesus!"  Do it now.  Just do it, when the going gets tough.  One roll is enough.  Go fix the cornbread.  Are you working on your book?  What about the story?  You take too many pictures.  I don't need a cat.  Don't you dare get me a cat.  I'm not big on fruit.   I used to think I could eat a whole pot roast.   I don't eat all day, except a coke at lunch.    I'd go without but I always have six eyes looking back at me.  Happy Altoids!

No party for me.  Eighty is old.  I don't know how many years I have left (but her mother lived to ninety-three.)  True.  Pull out the map.  Check the itinerary.  Some items marked will be drive-by viewings only.  California.  New England.  Italy.  New Orleans.  Her bags are packed.  Here we come Rome.  Let the whirlwind commence.


signed,

a girl who loves her Mama